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Bands with buzz: Wye Oak, La Sera, Alex Winston, Tabi Bonney

Friday, March 4, 2011; T23

Before the big time comes the buzz - that intangible quality you can't quite define, that comes in all shapes and sizes but is always the launching pad to greater success. Every band wants it. But how do you get it? There's no single magic formula. Here we profile four bands that are on the verge of big things - but each for different reasons - and explain how they got to this pivotal moment in their careers.

- David Malitz

Wye Oak

Young band hits its stride

Some bands find themselves in the spotlight too early and fail to live up to unreasonable expectations. Others hit their stride after the moment of opportunity has passed. But for Baltimore's Wye Oak, the timing couldn't be more perfect.

Leading up to next week's release of its third album, "Civilian," the duo finds itself at twin peaks of artistic power and critical and fan interest. It has been a slow and steady ascent, and that's exactly how the band hoped it would play out.

"I'm only just now beginning to understand how to function, creatively and logistically, as a musician and as a human being," said singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner. "I'm still evolving and learning, as everyone does, but it seems appropriate that the record we've just made - one that I feel is our strongest, by far, and the most indicative of the kind of band we hope to be - is getting the most attention."

The buzz around "Civilian" has come the old-fashioned way. Wye Oak, which also includes drummer/multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack, has stayed very busy the past four years, releasing two increasingly promising albums (plus a stellar EP) and touring many months each year. Over that time, the duo has transformed from a mild-mannered indie-folk band to one that plays dynamic songs with a surging intensity. It's common for concertgoers to wonder whether there are extra members hiding somewhere and how all that noise can come from just two people.

When making "Civilian," Wasner wanted to make sure the songs maintained their intensity but also had room to breathe - "existing in a certain space and leaving empty space when necessary," she said. Fittingly, each of the band's main elements - Wasner's radiant vocals and majestic guitar-playing, Stack's lurching rhythms and extra accoutrements - has its time to shine.

"I knew exactly what I wanted from each song, so getting there was a much easier and more enjoyable process," Wasner said. That sense of self-assurance shows in the songs.

"Doubt" is a quiet meditation featuring only Wasner's voice and guitar. "The Alter" slowly gains steam with a repetitive keyboard riff and Stack's syncopated drumming, but it never completely explodes. That moment comes on standout "Holy Holy," and it serves to make it all the more cathartic.

That progression is an appropriate parallel for the duo's career. Bands don't start much more innocuously than Wye Oak, which five years ago wrote, recorded and self-released its debut album, "If Children." That album caught the ears of Merge Records - home of big Grammy winner Arcade Fire - which re-released it in 2008 and a follow-up, "The Knot," the next year, all while letting the band develop at its own pace.

Many hyped bands spend their entire careers trying to live up to or re-create their earliest songs. Instead, Wye Oak is gaining fans as it gains confidence.

"It's terrifying to think that we might have reached some sort of peak during the life span of one of our earlier records," Wasner said. "I'm much more familiar with how to function as a band, how to tour. It feels comfortable."

In the lead-up to "Civilian," the band has played to huge audiences opening for acts such as the Decemberists, Cold War Kids and Spoon. Once the album is out, the biggest headlining tour of their career awaits. And they will be more than ready for all the attention.

Next local show: March 11. Doors open at 9 p.m. Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. 202-667-4490. www.blackcatdc.com. $12.

La Sera

New band from a familiar name

For La Sera, there was no need to build buzz; it came right away thanks to frontwoman Katy Goodman. Indie are any of the other Vivian Girls in this band, or is it a completely different lineup. Also, why did she come up with this name?/she's it, no one from VG; as for name, same reason as above/ah music fans know her as the bassist for Vivian Girls, a trio whose fuzzy, catchy songs have made it one of the most-talked-about bands on the underground circuit.

So not surprisingly, there was immediate interest in La Sera. For most new bands, finding a label is an arduous process. The first label Goodman shared her songs with was Hardly Art (a sister label to Seattle indie giant Sub Pop), which quickly agreed to release La Sera's debut. When the first song hit the Internet, the biggest tastemaking blogs posted it, and some of the band's first shows were on desirable bills at New York's CMJ music festival. There wasn't so much heavy lifting required; much of the groundwork had been laid.

But having an established identity can also have drawbacks. Familiarity breeds interest but also brings certain assumptions to the table.

"There are definitely people who already have ideas about what the music sounds like," Goodman says. "People are kind of expecting my album to sound more like Vivian Girls. More lo-fi, more like that."

In fact, La Sera's self-titled debut doesn't bear much resemblance to Vivian Girls. It glides instead of rumbles, an enchanting collection of 12 lovelorn songs with a clean sound that would appeal to those who might find Vivian Girls' songs too ramshackle.

"It kind of all happened by accident," Goodman said of La Sera. She wrote the songs a year ago, told her friend Brady Hall about them (in a Google chat conversation, no less) and eventually sent him the demos she had recorded on her own. He listened, liked and rerecorded the songs in his home studio while Goodman was on tour with Vivian Girls. She then recorded vocals, the pair mixed it together and, just like that, the album was done.

"It's a weird way to start a band. Definitely a unique approach," Goodman said.

The instant attention also means some learning on the fly. Goodman is no stranger to performing live, as Vivian Girls have made their way across the country and overseas plenty of times. But being a frontwoman is something new. In Vivian Girls she shares the spotlight; in La Sera, all eyes are on her.

"Even now I'm better at being the lead singer than I was a month ago," she said. "I feel like I'm learning at an exponential rate thanks to all these shows we're doing."

And there are a lot. Goodman is in the middle of the busiest period of her life. From February through June, her calendar has been packed with multiple La Sera tours, a Vivian Girls tour and even the inaugural four-day Bruise Cruise, a punk rock festival on a cruise ship.

"I've never had this experience," Goodman said, sounding more excited than nervous. "I enjoy being busy. It's definitely stressful at times, and it is fun to switch back and forth between bands. I learn a lot from each band."

Next local show: Saturday at 9 p.m. Rock & Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE. 202-388-7625. www.rockandrollhoteldc.com. $12.

Alex Winston

All the makings of a star

Alex Winston is ready to take on the world. The Detroit-born, New York-based singer-songwriter is just 23, but she's far from a rookie. From her musician father to childhood opera training to teenage forays into the industry, Winston's future as a musician has never been in doubt.

"I don't have any hobbies," Winston said during a brief break from a London recording session. "I don't have anything else I'd rather be doing."

Now, with the release of her debut mini-album, "Sister Wife," Winston gets the chance to go full-speed ahead. And her six introductory songs showcase an artist with the kind of mass appeal that could keep her charging forward for a long time.

A giddy energy courses through Winston's material. She plays sprightly songs that are centered on her chirpy vocals and lilting melodies, pop nuggets that are irrepressible with their energy and immediacy but never too saccharine. "I wish I cared about the things you care about/But I don't," she coos on "Locomotive," a sort of anti-love song that is the highlight of her debut. It has a vocal hook like super glue, guaranteed to stick in your head, yet only gets better with repeated listens.

Winston has been grouped with the likes of Florence + the Machine and Marina and the Diamonds - "the quirky girl pop thing," she calls it. But besides the fact that they are all women with distinctive voices, there isn't much to tie those artists together. Winston takes her inspiration from more classic sounds, particularly Chuck Berry and the Motown legends from her hometown. The elegant simplicity of those artists is what appeals to her.

Berry "could take four chords and make five songs," she said. "And they're all interesting and all have great melodies. It's great music, but it's not overcomplicated." Winston also mentions the Supremes as a favorite. "I just love gang vocals, a wall of sound and melodies that carry the song." When she plays live, a trio of backup singers helps bring this vision to life.

Developing a sound that she calls her own is Winston's proudest achievement to date. As a teenager, she worked with many producers and managers who told her what songs to sing and how to sing them.

When it came time to write her own material, she said, that control "stunted me creatively. Singing other people's songs for so long, I was like, 'How do I even do this?'" Nevertheless, those early experiences were valuable.

"I just feel really grounded," she said. "I've been through this to an extent, and I know not to get excited about the [stuff] that isn't real. This is the first time I feel ready to be going constantly," she adds excitedly. Now it's only a matter of time before listeners catch up.

Next local show: Saturday. Doors open at 9 p.m. Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. 202-667-4490. www.blackcatdc.com. $12.

Tabi Bonney

Veteran takes a new approach

More than any of these other artists, D.C. rapper Tabi Bonney knows what it's like to have buzz. Early in his career he had a bona fide hit with his slinky local anthem "The Pocket," which was inescapable on local hip-hop station WPGC in 2006. As is often the case when an up-and-coming artist scores a surprise hit, there were plenty of enticing career opportunities. But Bonney decided not to cash in on his buzz. Labels flew him to Los Angeles and New York, where he met with executives who made him pitches. But they just didn't get it.

"They thought 'The Pocket' was a dance," Bonney said, comparing it to current craze the Dougie. "You come in, you meet them and they just don't understand. All they know is that you're being played on the radio and they're looking at numbers."

So Bonney never signed a deal. But he has no regrets. "Why would you just hand over everything and put it in their hands if you already see what's going on with other artists?" he said, referring to friends and peers who put pen to paper only to see their albums get stuck in seemingly eternal limbo. Bonney chose to stay independent and maintain artistic freedom.

But here's the thing about buzz - it's fleeting. Bonney remains one of the city's best MCs and most charismatic performers, but the spotlight has shifted to other artists. His good friend Wale is now the face of D.C. hip-hop, with a string of well-received mixtapes landing him the major deal that Bonney passed on.

Five years after his hit, Bonney is still a vital force and is starting to recapture the attention of old fans and gain new ones. One way he's doing it is the most old-fashioned way possible - hitting the road as an opening act on a nationwide tour with Murs, a veteran underground rapper who has found success through the slow-grind route.

"I think, for me, that's one thing I have been lacking," Bonney said about touring. "I've had the TV, the radio. I just need to reach out physically now."

It's a smart move. Anyone who has seen Bonney on stage in Washington knows he separates himself from the pack in a live setting. He has a rare ability to be both laid-back and charismatic, his smooth drawl and quick rhymes creating a perfect balance.

Another way Bonney is making an impact is by embracing the current fast-paced music landscape. Last year he released "A Place Called Stardom," his first foray into the world of free mixtapes.

"To be honest, I wasn't that tuned into the Internet," Bonney admitted. "I was thinking in the old-school kind of way." But after seeing artists such as Wale blow up entirely thanks to standout efforts "100 Miles and Running" and "The Mixtape About Nothing," free efforts that reached wide swaths of listeners, Bonney decided to get into the game. Early this year he served up another free effort, "Postcard From Abroad," just a few months after the release of a proper album, "Fresh." Guess which made more of an impact?

"'Postcard' hit more people than my actual album that's for sale," he said. "You can't blame any one thing for that, you just see what works."

Now Bonney is working with Dame Dash, co-founder with Jay-Z of iconic Roc-A-Fella Records, has more releases planned and is looking to capitalize on his regained momentum.

"I've trusted my gut so far," he said. "There are situations on the table now. Once that bigger situation happens, it will be right. And it will happen. I'm cool."

Next local show TBA. "Postcard From Abroad" is available for free download at tabibonney.bandcamp.com.

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